UF study: Religion doesn't influence sense of well-being or fear of death in seniors

November 21, 2001

GAINESVILLE, Fla.--- Simply attending religious services or turning to religion in times of need will not increase a person's feeling of well-being or make them fear death less, at least among people in later life. The real key to contentment and satisfaction is finding a purpose in life, says University of Florida Institute on Aging researcher Monika Ardelt.

Her study, which was presented Sunday at the Gerontological Society of America annual meeting in Chicago, showed that people who had a feeling of purpose in life were not only more likely to experience a general sense of well-being but also tended to exhibit fewer depressive symptoms and fear death less. They also were less likely to avoid the topic of death.

"This study showed you can't just go to church and then expect you will feel better if it doesn't lead to a purpose in life," said Ardelt, an associate professor of sociology at UF. "Just going to church or just being religiously affiliated might actually be harmful if it doesn't result in a purpose in life."

The study's results may be particularly relevant since the events of Sept. 11. Americans have been flocking to church and prayer services, and those of all faiths have sought refuge in religion, looking for strength to cope with the devastating events of recent months and for help to calm their fears.

For the study, 107 relatively healthy, socially active North Central Floridians 58 years and older were surveyed using 215 questions compiled from standardized assessment measures. The questions determined things such as religious affiliation, participation in shared religious activities, degrees of religiousness, fear and other attitudes toward death, feelings of general well-being and purpose in life. Ardelt then used the responses to identify relationships between the factors.

When all other factors were controlled for, the research surprisingly found that simply having a religious affiliation tended to increase participants' fear of death.

The findings also showed that people who turned to religion only in times of need, prayed because they were taught to or felt that religion was less important than other aspects of their lives - termed extrinsic religiosity - actually tended to fear death and to avoid thinking about it. Intrinsic religiosity - a commitment of one's life to God or a higher power - did not directly influence these attitudes toward death.

Those who felt they had a clear purpose in life, had discovered satisfying goals and believed their lives had been worthwhile, however, tended not to fear death or to avoid thinking about it. Participants who felt this sense of purpose also were less likely to experience symptoms of depression and had a greater sense of well-being. Intrinsically religious participants were much more likely to feel this sense of purpose than those the survey identified as extrinsically religious.

"If religion leads to a purpose in life, it will help you cope and reduce fear of death. But for people who just go to church once a week, sit there for an hour and then forget about it - if religion doesn't lead to a purpose in life - then it will not help," said Ardelt, who points out that there are other ways, such as family and career, for people to find that much-needed life focus.

"That's the paradox. People who find meaning and purpose in life are more ready to let go. And those people who have the feeling that time is running out, and that they should have accomplished something and didn't, can't really let go," she said.

Intrinsically religious participants also showed a strong tendency to approach death positively and to believe in and look forward to life after death. Extrinsic religiosity had no effect.

Although the number of participants was relatively small, the results seem to point to the need for people to become more intrinsically motivated through spiritual nurturing and self-reflective thought. Current events may provide an opportune time to accomplish this, Ardelt said.

"I think an infusion of spirituality may be needed," she said. "People need to look inwardly and observe themselves - look at things from different perspectives and not just from the outside. If they do that, they tend to see a deeper truth than just what is obvious."

The social scientific study of the contributions that religiosity and spirituality play in well-being in later life has been one of the major advances in gerontology in the last 20 years, said Susan McFadden, professor and chairman of the department of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. Previously, such issues were avoided, ignored and even rejected as legitimate topics for research, she said.

"Religiosity and spirituality are multidimensional and complex in their influence on well-being," McFadden said. "It's wonderful that current researchers like Monika Ardelt are pointing out their role in older adults' responses to the challenges and contingencies of their lives."

University of Florida

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